I don’t know what it is about churches that attracts me when we travel – after all, I’ve been an agnostic since my teenage years.
But there is no doubt that churches, temples, shrines and mosques draw me like a moth to a flame.
And that was true in Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, as we discovered L’église de l’Immaculée Conception (or the Church of Immaculate Conception in English.)
The church was built in 1874, and one of its key features is the dozens of small marble plaques along its walls. Each of them pays thanks to the Virgin Mary for some miracle, or stroke of luck, the grateful petitioners have benefited from – leading to the church being known as “the church of miracles”
It’s location on a hillside overlooking Noumea, and it’s pretty-as-a-picture interior, make this a must-see stop on many tours of Noumea .. especially those taking busloads of cruise-ship passengers on a brief overview of New Caledonia’s largest centre.
It also attracts thousands pilgrims every year on August 15 during the Feast of the Assumption, one of the most important days in the Catholic calendar and a public holiday in New Caledonia.
European settlement in New Caledonia began not long after it was spotted by James Cook – who named it Caledonia, or Scotland – because he thought it looked a bit like the Scottish Highlands (albeit a bit warmer, I’d suggest 🙂
New Caledonia was seized by the French in 1853, after the arrival of European colonies in Oceania – and in the beginning, New Caledonia was used as a penal colony.
Bsides being a dumping ground for tens of thousands of political prisoners, New Caledonia had another value for France … nickel mining began in the 1870s.
Those nickel mines are still one of the main industries in New Caledonia – and particularly on Grand Terre, the biggest island, and the location of Noumea.
When nickel was discovered in 1864, this led to the eventual mining of the mineral and colonization of this area by miners the French sent – and much like the Native Americans in the United States, the natives of New Caledonia were excluded from the economy, and were eventually relegated to reservations the French established.
In 1878, there was a violent response by the Kakak locals, which sparked a war that cost casualties on both sides.
However, due to continued migration from France, the importation of Polynesian workers into the nickel mines, and the diseases that came with white settlement, the kanaks were effectively decimated in the period leading up to the early 1930s.
After World War Two, there was a period of rising unrest – leading to a change in status in 1946 when residents gained the same rights as though they were in the arrondissements of Paris, including French citizenship, regardless of ethnicity, in 1953.
And that discontent and disorder continued, culminating in a bloody hostage-taking in Ouvea in 1988.
As a result, local Kanak activists, French politicians, and the anti-independence kingpins who held control of local affairs negotiated the Matignon Agreements signed in June 1988.
They set the groundwork for the Noumea Accord that promised a 20-year transition gradually to local government.
You’ll note that 1988 is closer to 30 years ago – but these things nearly always take longer than expected.